July 8, 2008

Canadian Statistical Extrapolation -- An Armchair Exercise In Demographic Assumptions

One of my previous posts led me down an interesting mental rabbit hole. How many gay people are there, compared to straight people? It seems to me that the answer may be smaller than I'd ever thought. Particularly because some gay people are closeted, getting good statistical data about them is something of a challenge. I've heard estimates that 3% of all people are gay. This does not jibe with my own experience; the number seems on the high side.

My SWAG would be about one-third of that. So let's go in search of data to support my predetermined conclusion, shall we? As you shall see, my search is unsuccessful. But I won't pretend this is science just because I've disproved a proposition; there is a difference between a guess and a hypothesis.

Of all the nations on Earth, Canada is the most culturally similar to the United States. Similar English legal and political heritage, same tradition of self-reliant individualism, a generally similar spread and mix of religions and racial groups, analagous tensions about immigration and civil liberties. Certainly there are some cultural differences between the U.S. and Canada but all the same, Canadians are pretty much like Americans. Hell, Canadians even look just like us, it's sometimes deceptively hard to tell us apart. (Kidding!)

One statistic that we can be confident in because it comes straight from the Canadian census is that only .075% of Canadian marriages -- that's 75 marriages in 100,000 -- are same-sex. So for every 200,000 married people, 150 of them are in same-sex marriages. It seems fair to assume that all of those same-sex marriages are between gay people. We also see from the Canadian experience that Canada has a marriage rate of functionally the same rate as that of Americans -- nearly exactly 50% of all Canadians are married. So that means, for every 400,000 Canadians, 150 of them are in same-sex marriages, 199,850 are in opposite-sex marriages, and 200,000 are unmarried.

Now, people find themselves unmarried for a wide variety of reasons. Some are minors. Some are mentally retarded developmentally disabled and therefore unable to form the consent necessary to marry. Some are widowed. Some were married and are now divorced. Some aren't married out of choice or because they haven't found a suitable spouse.

And some, but not all, people are gay. Here's where the difference is -- in Canada, being gay has not been an impediment to getting married (to a same-sex partner, if that's your choice) since 2003. So one would expect that if someone is gay and not married, it's by choice. Now, there are probably at least some married Canadians who are also gay -- think Brokeback Mountain or Ted Haggard, with a secretly gay spouse sneaking out to cheat on their spouses; or maybe these gay people married to opposite-sex spouses deny themselves the license to engage in gay sex for religious reasons; or maybe they have "open" relationships in which their spouse is not concerned if they fool around. Who knows how many such people there are or what kind of arrangements they have -- but we can't assume that all people in opposite-sex marriages are necessarily heterosexual. (However, it's probably safe to assume that an overwhelmingly large percentage of people in opposite-sex marriages are heterosexuals.)

But the real question is, of the gay people in Canada, how many who are able to marry their lovers have chosen not to? Do gay people have a lower propensity for marriage than straight people? I'd like to say, "No, of course not," but that may not neccesarily be true just because I want it to be.

To delve into this cultural issue, I could research a variety of gay authors' blogs or writings; I could do that but I'm not going to.

I suspect that after filtering out all of the Facebook crap I would find two categories of gay writers -- the very thoughtful, and the very radical. Neither may be particularly representative.

A thoughtful gay writer -- famously in the blogosphere, Andrew Sullivan is a good example of this sort of person -- is likely to have spent some time and mental energy considering the benefits and burdens of marriage before tying the knot (or not). Such writers may also have considered "gay culture" and found it a difficult thing to define. Sullivan admits that there is a strain of gay culture that glorifies promiscuity. These are the guys who parade around in S&M gear on Gay Pride Day.

If I find the blog or other writings of these sorts of people, I suspect that would also be unrepresentative. Promiscuous people, whether gay or straight, will likely not consider marriage to be a particularly good thing since it must eschewed, or at least significantly modified, to sustain promiscuity. (For a heterosexual example of this, consider George Clooney -- he doesn't want to get married because he enjoys having a string of girlfriends too much.) And, as I explain below, I rather doubt that gays are all that much more promiscuous than straights.

But the fact is, I don't really want to wade through a bunch of this and even if I did, I'd wind up only with anecdotal information and probably some pretty colorful spam and tracking cookies on my computer. For now, I'd much rather play the parlor game of making reckless assumptions and spurious use of statistics, the way an economist does. But that's going to get me in trouble, or at least not wind up meshing with my initial guess. But here we go:

Assume that Canada is similar enough to the United States that we can safely extrapolate Canadians' experiences to ourselves. Canada's ratio of gay people to straight people will be pretty much the same as in the U.S. Assume further that pretty much all of the gay people in Canada who want to get married have figured out that they can and will have done so by now, so if you are gay, Canadian, and single, the reason that you are single has nothing to do with being gay anymore. The ratio of gays seeking marriage to straights seeking marriage in Canada is about 6:8000. We know that the overall rate of married people to people in general is about 1:2. So if gay people get married at the same rate as straight people, then that means that fifteen in 10,000 (that's .15%) of all people are gay.

Three in one hundred seems too high. But fifteen in ten thousand seems too low.

So maybe gay people are less attracted to marriage than straight people. If a gay person, given the opportunity to marry, is only half as likely to do so as opposed to his straight counterpart, then we'd infer that .3% of all people -- three in a thousand -- are gay. That still seems low.

But in order for the 3% figure I've heard thrown about to be justifiable, my theoretical construct would mean that they would have to be twenty times less likely to marry as straight people, once they are afforded the opportunity. Like the 3% figure itself, this still just doesn't feel right.

I might be able to buy the idea that (particularly young) homosexuals are less interested in marriage because they a) have very little cultural tradition of marrying their lovers, b) may have had the "moral prejudice" against homosexuallity pounded into their heads from the pulpit and are ashamed of what they are, and/or c) may find a single and promiscuous lifestyle to be enjoyable to the point that they would forego marriage for longer than straight people (on average; there are some pretty promiscuous straights out there). But twenty times as much?

Sure, having lots of sex with lots of partners is fun. But gays, like straights, must figure out at some point in their lives that they need to settle down and stop catting around after a while; at some point, one matures and starts to want a more constant companion and pursuing all that random sex starts to be more work than pleasure. I can't imagine how it would be substantialy different for gays than straights.

So, my armchair exercise in statistical extrapolation must have a flaw somewhere -- an incorrect assumption, a bad analogy, a mistake in my math. But I can't see what it is on my own. Or, maybe I'm right, and gays really are twenty times less likely to marry than us hetero folks are, even given the opportunity to do so.

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